Losing to live

Renee Rosenow

In 1984, non-traditional UW-Eau Claire student Kelly Powers was an alternate to the United State’s Olympic shot put and discus team. Sixteen years later, he was facing an almost certain death. He was suffering from morbid obesity.

Where it all began

Powers grew up in Pepin and grew up working on a farm, he said, so he was always in good shape. In the 5th grade, he started lifting weights.

By high school, Powers said he was the strongest kid in the conference and ranked 2nd in Wisconsin for shot put. He was a four-year starter for football, shot put and discus, as well as lettering in baseball and basketball.

“Never in my life did I dream that I would be obese in high school,” Powers said.

Powers was recruited for track by many colleges but chose Yankton College in South Dakota since the head track coach was the U.S. Olympic shot put and discus coach.

Powers received a full scholarship consisting of three-fourths track and one-fourth football.

He was given a stipulation to play on the football team, however.

“My coach told me if I didn’t weigh 300 pounds I wouldn’t make the team, and if I did, I would be the starting nose guard,” Powers said.

From there, Powers began increasing his weight and fluctuated from 280 pounds during the track season to 300 pounds during the football season. Powers said this is where he learned some really bad eating habits.

Powers continued this lifestyle until 1983, when Yankton College went bankrupt. In 1984, he served as an alternate to the U.S. Olympic shot put and discus team.

After college, Powers played semi-pro baseball and football and said he tried to keep his weight down, except during the football season. After awhile, he said he stopped playing football and restricted his baseball.

The next chapter in Powers’ life was when he began working as a behavioral management program writer and sat behind a desk all day long. He did this for 12 years. Powers said he also got into truck driving, which involved sitting behind a wheel all day. This was when his weight really started to increase.

Powers said he tried every diet but just ended up gaining more weight.

“I knew that I needed help, but when you are that heavy, you don’t realize it,” Powers said. “I was 50 pounds away from being one of those people you cut a hole in the wall and get them out with a crane.”

In 2000, Powers said he was passing a kidney stone and his doctor told him he was just going to sign the death certificate right there.

“They couldn’t take me out of the emergency room because there weren’t any beds big enough,” Powers said.

Around this time, Powers reached his heaviest point – 680 pounds. He said he was weighed on a grain scale; the only scale large enough to hold him.

Powers also had a Body Mass Index of 98.4. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Web site, a person is obese with a BMI of equal or greater than 30. Also, once a person has reached the point of being obese, they are at risk for coronary heart disease, Type II diabetes, cancer, hypertension, high cholesterol, liver and gallbladder disease, sleep apnea and arthritis.

Powers was suffering from many of these conditions, including hypertension and arthritis. He was a borderline diabetic, suffered from sleep apnea, had constant aches and pains, and had trouble breathing. He said he spent 90 percent of his time inside since he could no longer work or fit behind the wheel of a vehicle.

“My quality of life was almost non-existent,” Powers said.

The turning point

After his hospital visit, Powers said he began going to the Mayo Clinic, 200 1st Street South West, Rochester, Minn., to see about getting gastric bypass surgery. At that point he was on disability, Medicare and Medicaid, and Mayo required a $2,500 deposit, which he just didn’t have.

After that, Powers said he gave up on having gastric bypass, but in 2003, he was set up with a doctor at the Marshfield Clinic, 2116 Craig Road, where he began a program for patients looking to get gastric bypass.

The first thing he had to do was get Medicaid to approve the surgery. With the doctor’s approval, Powers said they approved it immediately.

Powers did have to undergo two psychological evaluations as well before surgery.

“Gastric bypass is not the easy way out,” he said. “It is more difficult than any diet you will go on because it is physically
painful.”

Powers said he was also required to see a dietitian once a month for six months prior to the surgery in order to teach him how to portion out foods, foods to avoid and what reactions could occur.

Ten days before the surgery, Powers said he had to do a full liquid diet. He was down to 533 pounds before his surgery.

On Jan. 25, 2005, Powers had gastric bypass surgery.

Powers said the surgery was surprisingly painless, and the first thing he noticed was the feeling of being full.

“I never felt hungry,” Powers said. “To this day, I forget to eat since I don’t have that urge.”

Powers was in the hospital for five days after his surgery. He said the first week was difficult and he had to eat very slowly. If he ate fast, he would get sick since his stomach was about the size of a ping pong ball.

Powers said he also experienced dumping syndrome, which is when undigested food is “dumped” into the intestine, causing cramps and nausea. It happened when he drank one of the Slim Fast drinks he was able to drink before his surgery. He said he immediately went into dumping syndrome since it had more sugar than his new stomach could handle.

The road to health

Powers said he lived at his dad’s after the surgery and his father was his “pillar of support.”

He began to exercise by walking from the house to the driveway and back; eventually going on longer walks. He also began swimming and got back into hunting and fishing.

In the first month after his surgery, Powers said, he lost 70 pounds and continued to lose at least one pound a day for the first six months. He said this was out of the norm for gastric bypass patients, so his doctors were concerned, but his blood vitamin levels were perfect.

According to the Mayo Clinic’s Web site, a person can lose 50 to 60 percent of their excess weight within two years of the surgery.

Today, Powers is below 200 pounds with a total weight loss of 500 pounds.

He said his exercising continues and that he just joined karate. He said he bikes daily, enjoys cross country and downhill skiing, along with hiking and camping.

Even with all his success, Powers still has mental struggles.

“You can’t expect perfection,” Powers said. “I still have body image issues. I still see that enormous person in the mirror; I go to restaurants and see they only have booths to sit in and think I won’t be able to fit.”

But even that can’t keep Powers from feeling the success. He said before his surgery he bought a pair of “goal” pants, which were a size 40. Today he wears a size 34.

Powers’ health has also dramatically improved. He is no longer a borderline diabetic, his sleep apnea is gone and his quality of life has returned.

Powers returned to Eau Claire in 2006 and will graduate in May with a degree in social work. Powers said he is happy to be back to work and living life again.

He has been doing a presentation on his story for two years now for different groups and organizations, as well as at Eau Claire so people can change their lifestyle before it is too late, like it almost was for him.

“Don’t think it couldn’t happen to you,” Powers said. “For as much athletics as I did, I had no idea it was going to happen to me.”